People who watched Amir Khan’s Three Idiots might not have forgotten the character named Phunsukh Wangdu. He is a living legend of Ladakh who has contributed immensely in changing the way the arid desert faces its challenges in education, agriculture and ecology. It was for his innovation of Ice Stupas that Sonam Wangchuk, the Srinagar-read engineer, bagged the prestigious Rolex Award in 2016 and a Roman Magsaysay Award in 2018. Now he is working on an alternative university that will be international in character and Himalayan in nature. During his recent visit to Srinagar, he talked about himself, his initiatives and his objectives in detail with Masood Hussain
KASHMIR LIFE (KL): Everybody has heard of Sonam Wangchuk but quite a few know him. How much can you reveal about your life and evolution?
SONAM WANGCHUK (SW): I was born in a small Ladakh village but I spent most of my time in Kashmir which I still remember. I studied in a Kendra Vidyalaya from the third primary to the sixth standard. Later, I got admission in NIT Srinagar and spent four years here doing my engineering. I am aware of Kashmir, know it and love it.
KL: What did you do after you became an engineer?
SW: While I was doing my engineering, I got into education and started teaching kids to bear my study expenses. Gradually, I realised how hollow our education system is, so I felt a need to improve it. I thought engineers can be around in long lines but what we really need right now is to improve the education system. The percentage of students who failed in their examinations in Ladakh was 95 per cent. I wanted to help these students. So I put my engineering on the back burner and started working for the students. What we really worked for was how to make students learn things that help them improve living standards.
As I started getting into education, I came to know that the curriculum is delinked from the environment. How life is in deserts, that there are hot summers and extremely cold winters in deserts; these basic things were missing in the curriculum. So I started working in connecting the curriculum with the life around, basic things that students could pick up. This was aimed at getting them ready for life and only after that they would be ready to contribute in different activities of life.
KL: Was your curriculum interruption from the NGO you founded, the SECMOL?
SW: SECMOL (Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) started in the year 1988. It was the same year when I completed my engineering. During the vacations, though, I would get into education. Once I completed my degree, I started working for it. We could not change the curriculum in Ladakh but changed the books and brought those books closer to the Ladakh society. Then, we set up a special school with a different curriculum especially for those students who would fail in their tenth standard examinations. We made special programmes for them under which they learned things practically. They started picking up education while working in fields. They used solar power to get light into their classrooms. They were part of the construction of solar-heated buildings. This helped them learn quicker and faster. This is the change we brought around; otherwise, we only changed the books while keeping the curriculum intact. We did train their teachers, however.
KL: Leh is one of the most literate districts in Jammu and Kashmir and this revolution took place in the last 20 years. Apart from SECMOL who contributed to this revolution?
SW: Even before SECMOL and in addition to SECMOL, lot of people had contributed immensely to the cause of education in Ladakh. This revolution came way before the SECMOL was born. After independence, Kushak Bakula and my father, Sonam Wangyal, worked together for this cause. They went to different villages, opened many schools. It was because of them that, at one point of time, when in India, half of the children population was out of school, Ladakh had 95 per cent of its children enrolled in schools. This infrastructure and enrolment, we inherited. Our only contribution was that we linked syllabus and the books with the life in Ladakh and its culture. The quantity was always there, we only contributed to the quality of education.
KL: For the last two years, you are working on a private university. I want to know its status and ask you if your initiative would be in conflict with the campus of the Kashmir University and the cluster university that state government has already set up?
SW: This alternative university is also linked with the requirement on the ground. One reason was that for Ladakh students, the higher education was available in Jammu and Chandigarh. The other reason was that even if a university would be there, it was delinked from the challenges that these students would face in Ladakh. With these things in mind, we signed an MoU with the satellite campus of the University of Kashmir for collaboration. So the University crafted certain courses like Earth Sciences, Geology, Tourism and Geography that linked the higher education with Ladakh’s requirements and that made us happy. For us, the objective is important and not who is doing it.
Now we want that the Cluster University should also pick up certain subjects – well within its mandate – which are in tune with the requirements of the hilly Himalayan region.
As far as our idea of an Alternative University is concerned, that is completely radical which no government would touch. We also know that Ladakh lacks enough of students for three universities, not even for one. So our idea of the Alternative University is that it must be an international university for the entire range of Himalayan states between the Alps, Indies and Hindukush, from Afghanistan to Bhutan to Myanmar so that the students can join and study what is not basic and natural to them. When you have an international clientele, it hardly matters where the centre of learning is and what is its population.
KL: So what is the status? We know that the awards you got, you all contributed to this cherished initiative. You still need a lot of resources. Where from are you expected to manage that?
SW: We want to implement this project while we start and learn. To us, this is something new. We wanted to start small. In 2019, we started a small fellowship program in which 10 fellows from within and outside Ladakh were taken for a course Integrated Mountain Development for one year. While implementing this, we want to see the ups and downs, the actual requirements. As of now, it happens on a low scale, so it doesn’t cost us much. But we will scale up things in future.
We have already started some constructions. For the initial couple of years, we will be moving gradually to understand things.
Right now, we have donors to the extent of our current requirements. The government in the state and the LAHDC are very supportive and positive to what we are doing. Hill Council has already given us the land, we required. As we move ahead, I believe, people will understand us better and come forward and help.
KL: What is your contribution in managing a balance between agriculture, fragile ecology and economy of Ladakh?
SW: There is no contribution as such but we are making efforts to sanitise people about the acute scarcity of water. It is obvious because Ladakh is a desert so we anticipate more problems on the availability of water especially when the glaciers are fast melting. In the wake of this obvious climatic change, we are working with the researchers in the university to hunt for a solution to manage the climatic change impact.
Already, we are working on artificial glaciers and helping people to replicate them everywhere in the region. This is vital for better management of water. The little water that we have available during winters should not get wasted and instead needs to be frozen for early summer use when the discharge is otherwise low.
We also have to think seriously about austerity in the use of little water available in the desert so we will have to use drip irrigation systems, the most efficient ones in future.
There is already a hunt for identifying techniques and technologies that will help us to grow trees without water or with limited artificial irrigation. We want these species that suit our ecology and which can grow with whatever rains we have which is very limited – four inches (100 mm) a year, which means nothing.
There are some plants which grow in this dryness. Dry Rose, for instance, grows and survives in this climate. These roses have commercial use and they grow high on mountains without or with little water. We are studying how to plant these roses on a grand scale.
Caper (Capparis spinosa known world over as caper bush and Flinders rose) is another plant. It is essential in Pasta, Noodles and other Western dishes. It also grows without irrigation.
We are thinking on all these issues. We are also thinking that if agriculture fails how people can survive with tourism. We are thinking of how tourism has dispersal and does not restrict to a city and force the people living in villages to migrate to the urban centre. The issue is how to get the tourist to the village, instead. We are working on a Farm Stay idea envisaging the women of the village to convert their homes into a homestay station so that tourists get to know how the people work in their farms. This will help the residents to stay home, work on their fields and sell the tourists if they are into some kind of handicrafts.
This is a must. Otherwise, villages will get destroyed for lack of population and the city will die because of over-population. These issues are a priority and the Alternative University will help us find answers to all these issues.
KL: We had one shrub, the seabuckthorn, a Ladakh success story. What happened to the plant?
SW: Seabuckthorn is a wonderful initiative. There has some work been done on that but we did not do anything on that. What we want to do is to get into plants that have economical worth and ecological advantages. The plants like Dry Roses, Capers and Junipers that I am talking about, if grown in higher altitudes will help in absorbing most of the rainwater thus they will prevent floods. Indirectly, it will also help manage a gradual discharge thus preventing droughts. Seabuckthorn is great but it grows in lower altitudes. But it is a miracle plant and it has great advantages. There are various NGOs working on this plant in addition to Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR).
KL: We already have at least two 5-star hotels in Leh. Is there a possibility of creating a separate tourist township?
SW: We need to intervene at two levels – the space and the time. Tourism in Ladakh, right now, is an activity in a patch of five square km of Leh for five summer months. On space front, we need to focus from Leh to the periphery to Zanaskar, Kargil and other places. This will improve the carrying capacity in the region. On time front, we have to talk about winter tourism and see what we can do during winters. We can make these ice stupas as a huge tourist attraction. We already have Chadder track in winters. We have many other things that can help us take tourism to a 12-months spread. In summers, for instance, we can have apricots tourism because its blossoming could attract many people. We can have autumn tourism as well.
KL: How was your Ice Stupa innovation responded by other regions having similar problems?
SW: What we need to understand is that the concept of Ice Stupa is not possible everywhere. It is possible only in the regions which are extremely cold deserts with the availability of some water and where freezing is taking place. Usually, the higher Himalayan areas from Afghanistan to Bhutan live in this climatic condition where water is available and is getting wasted during freezing winters. It has an advantage that it does not require many resources, no pumping is required, no electricity and no fuel is needed. It works purely on gravity. That is why this model is slightly attractive to people. It is on an experimental stage as of now; it has not been fully scaled up. We are realising that this can be done on a large scale.
We understand this fully that this model can help preserve water and use it at places where normally agriculture faces problems and no vegetation takes places. This initiative uses water when it is not required and conserves it for early summer – April and May when the water is quite scarce. After these two months – in July and August, the glacial melt improves the discharge and the water is available for irrigation. This initiative is only managing the bottleneck of two months for cold arid zones. But at places where there is no sub-zero temperature, it cannot be replicated.
KL: Are there any instances where the model was replicated outside Ladakh?
SW: Yes, it was implemented in Switzerland. They used this innovation for the reasons of tourism and glaciers and not for agriculture. They were very interested in this so our people flew from here and created it for them. Similarly, in Skardu (in Gilgit-Baltistan), I have heard some of our bothers got inspired by the videos and started making their own Ice Stupa, though a small one. In Sikkim, people are working on it. In Peru, we went for certain interventions and it is in progress. There is a lot of interest in it from various places.
KL: With such radical thinking in a very remote area, did it ever create any conflict with policymakers, conservative people and other stakeholders?
SW: At places where there are problems, ideas are responded positively. Necessity is the mother of invention. When we started working for the education of children, whatever negativity came in our way, we used to treat it as part of the program and moved forward. We never expected an easy way, so the hardships that came in our way did not affect us. Basically, we were mentally prepared for the criticism so it didn’t really bother us. We never expected a hassle-free movement as our objectives were huge and dear to us. We expected problems and when they came we were ready and these got settled on their own.
At one point of time, people started thinking that they are working for their brands, their names. There were awards and all that. I have always maintained that these awards are a mix of good and bad things. While it helps in making things easier but at the same time, the name creates some discomfort among some people. But when you continue your work, the problems are unable to bother you, in a way, the problems get tired and leave you.
I remember an Urdu couplet that explains it all;
Nasheeman Par Nasheeman Is Kadr Tameer Karta Ja,
Bijli Girtay Girtay Aap Hie Beazaar Ho Jayay
KL: What about the Siachen glacier, the way it is melting and shrinking?
SW: It is no way good for any of the two countries fighting for it. It is a war of ego. They are fighting over a huge mound of snow that lacks utility to either of the two. On Siachen, national egos are involved. We should make Siachen a symbol of peace. That cannot be done by our governments or the armies but the people of the two countries can do it. The average expense for India to keep its army stationed on Siachen costs almost seven crore rupees per day. See the people of that belt, the children lack basic education and food but still, we spend so much. Pakistan does the same thing, though her costs are slightly less. Why are they doing all this? India says if they vacate, Pakistan will take over, and Pakistan says the same thing. They do it because of each other and there is no other reason. The people from both sides should come forward and help to make this glacier a zone of peace.
(Shefali Rafiq contributed in processing the interview)